By Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's Christian Democrats slumped to record defeats in two regional votes on Sunday after a muddled coronavirus response, dealing a setback to the party which faces federal elections in September without Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel, in power since 2005, is not seeking re-election at the national vote and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is already missing the "Merkel bonus" she has brought them with four consecutive national election victories.
Anger over a face mask procurement scandal in the CDU is compounding frustration among Germans with Merkel's conservative-led coalition over a sluggish coronavirus vaccine rollout caused by supply shortages and excessive bureaucracy.
Voters used the state elections to vent their annoyance.
In the southwestern automotive hub of Baden-Wuerttemberg, the Greens won 31.4% of the vote and the CDU 23.4%, projections based on early results for broadcaster ZDF showed.
In neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate, the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) came first again with 35.5% of the vote ahead of the CDU, which led there in opinion polls until last month but secured only 26.9% support in Sunday's election.
"This is not a good election evening for the CDU," a downbeat-looking Paul Ziemiak, the party's secretary general, told reporters after the exit poll results.
The ecologist Greens were jubilant.
"This is a super start to the super election year," said Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens, suggesting that the outcome boded well in a year which will culminate with the national election at which Merkel's successor will be chosen.
Along with fears of a potential third coronavirus wave, CDU officials worry the party's reputation took a hit in the last two weeks when several conservative lawmakers quit over allegations they received payments for arranging procurement deals.
The CDU has seen its national popularity wane from 40% last June, when Germany was widely praised for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, to around 33% this month.
The SPD's candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said Sunday's results showed a national government without the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party could be possible after September's vote. "A lot is possible," he told broadcaster ARD.
Both regional election results open the way for potential regional alliances of the Greens, SPD and liberal Free Democrats (FDP), which already governed in Rhineland-Palatinate before Sunday's election.
CDU leaders fear the same constellation of parties could gain enough support to leave their party in opposition at national level at September's federal vote.
In Baden-Wuerttemberg, Greens leader Winfried Kretschmann said his party would sound out the CDU, but also the SPD and FDP about coalition possibilities.
The FDP's national leader Christian Linder said that despite their differences the CDU and CSU remained the parties closest to his.
Linder said attempts at forming a three-way coalition after the 2017 federal election between the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP had failed, but added: "This year, the cards will be reshuffled."
BLOW TO LASCHET
Sunday's results are a blow to CDU party chairman Armin Laschet, who took pole position in the race to succeed Merkel by winning the CDU leadership two months ago.
"This is far from an ideal start to this election year for Laschet," said Carsten Nickel at Teneo, a consultancy.
"Nervousness might increase within the CDU, but it is not yet obvious that the party will put all the blame at its new leader's door."
The loss in Baden-Wuerttemberg, where the CDU has been junior coalition partner to the Greens for the last five years, could help Laschet's Bavarian rival Markus Soeder in their contest to be the conservative chancellor candidate.
Soeder and Laschet want to settle the candidacy matter by May 23. No German chancellor has ever come from the CSU.
(Writing by Paul Carrel and Emma Thomasson; Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers, Thomas Escritt, Maria Sheahan and Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Mike Harrison, David Clarke, Raissa Kasolowsky and Jane Merriman)